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Exercise and the brain with Dr. Kelly McGonigal

On this episode of the Braincare podcast, Dr. Kelly McGonigal shares her expert insight on exercise and the brain.

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April 27, 2021
3 min read

Dr. Kelly McGonigal wants to give you an intravenous dose of hope. The pioneering health psychologist, Stanford lecturer, and serial best-selling author is back on the Braincare podcast to share her radical thoughts on how movement affects the brain.

Today, Kelly gets us hopped up on endorphins as we discuss the endless positives of exercise. She explains how exercise can make our brains both more flexible and more resilient, why myokines are the most important proteins you've probably never heard of, and how you can use your body to engage with life.

You can listen to the episode here.

Article breakdown

Your brain on exercise 

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘your brain is like a muscle’. While this comparison is technically inaccurate, it’s true in that just like the muscles in your body, you need to exercise your brain to keep it in tip-top shape.

Your brain, muscles, and heart all need time to adapt to movement in ways that will make it more enjoyable, meaningful, and easier. Unless you’ve dedicated six weeks to movement, you cannot know whether or not you love to exercise. Don’t give up—give yourself a chance, and keep moving.

If you want to fall in love with movement, you have to give up your cynicism. 

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The benefits of physical exercise

Let’s talk benefits: exercise changes your brain in ways that make you more resilient to stress, trauma, depression, anxiety, and age-related changes like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cognitive decline. 

Exercise not only triggers the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins, but it also impacts the structure of your brain, making you more sensitive to joy, pleasure, and positive motivation.

Physical exercise can be a powerful antidote to the modern epidemics of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Dr. Kelly’s movement tips for stress 

  • Grab a friend and exercise outside. Working out with other people—particularly in nature—are two adjustments you can make to amplify the mental health benefits of movement. Also, moving with other people creates collective joy, and an increased sense of belonging and community. It leaves you feeling connected to others and sets you up to deal with any incoming stress. 

  • Move at a moderate intensity for at least 20 minutes. This will allow you to feel that exercise ‘high’ brought on by increased levels of dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphins.

  • You don’t have to do a 30-minute HIIT workout to reap the benefits of physical exercise—a simple 10-minute walk will do. Although fitness culture tells us otherwise, exercise is not all about losing weight or achieving a certain health status; according to Dr. Kelly, as long as you’re ‘using your body to engage with life’, you’re on the right track. 

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